Ozark: Netflix’s latest show, starring Jason Bateman, is more than just its version of Breaking Bad
It’s easy to be reductive about Ozark. To say that if you liked Breaking Bad, you’ll like Ozark too. To call it the lovechild of Breaking Bad and Bloodline. To term it the quintessential show about a white male antihero that predictably checks all the tropes of a white male antihero show. And to say that it’s the kind of genre-conforming show that comfortably follows its predecessors (eg Breaking Bad, The Sopranos) without doing anything else — that is, besides suiting Netflix’s recommendation algorithm for this genre really well.
In a way, Ozark is all of this — Netflix’s week-old offering has a very unlike-Michael Bluth Jason Bateman in the starring role of Martin ‘Marty’ Byrde, a can-spot-even-the smallest-glitch-in-your-accounts kinda numbers guy from Chicago, who’s been very nonchalantly laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel; unbeknown to him, his business partner Bruce has been skimming off of some of the cartel’s money in a shady side business of his own. Ozark starts with Marty’s cartel “boss” Del learning of this doublecross, lining up a bunch of cocksure business and accounting men (including Marty and Bruce) and killing everyone except Marty, right in front of him. Seeing your friend and business partner being murdered before your eyes and knowing that his body will be dissolved in acid leaving no trace — that can make anyone s**t their pants.
Our man Marty is made of steelier resolve though; in this gut-wrenching moment, he pleads for his life (and his family’s life, btw, since Del had obviously threatened to kill them too) and concocts what he thinks is a genius plan — he’ll move down to the Lake of the Ozarks, a man-made reservoir in Missouri that’s a cash-rich holiday destination where he will, in the absence of prying FBI eyes, launder $500 million of the cartel’s drug money within a few months. Cha-ching! Del is intrigued, and he allows Marty this one shot; there’s a caveat though — in order to stay alive and continue breaking the law by laundering $500 million of the cartel’s money, Marty first needs to launder the already “clean” $8 million that Bruce had stolen from the cartel. You know, kinda like an audition with really high stakes.
And that’s the premise on which Ozark is built:
1. Smart, white, urban Everyman caught in a dangerous situation, check.
2. Bloodthirsty crime lords casually killing and disposing bodies, check.
3. A sprawling rural expanse of the countryside filmed in muted dark and blue tones, check.
4. A disgruntled middle class family, check.
5. Oh, and Marty’s complicit-in-the-money-laundering wife (played by Laura Linney) is cheating on him with a rich old man (who meets a disastrous end..but more on that later).
In a reductive nutshell, Ozark fulfills every genre trope; thankfully, though, it does this with a self-awareness that allows the viewers to sit back and enjoy it. If you haven’t watched it yet, I would definitely recommend Ozark. Despite its taking-itself-too-seriously bleakness, it’s a whole lot of fun and the perfect weekend binge!
In 2011, Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of No Reservations down in the Ozarks, travelling through flyover country preparing duck and watching locals skin squirrels for a squirrel potpie. For most of us, that’s pretty much our only knowledge of the region, if that. To be clear, the Lake of the Ozarks is a 54,000 acre man-made reservoir in southern Missouri, with over a 1000 miles of coastline, while the Ozark highlands area is the most extensive mountainous region between the Appalachians and the Rocky mountains. That’s a terrific setting for any story! For a TV show named after such a region, you’d expect it to be integral to the show — sort of like the lonesome yet beautiful snowy vastness of Minnesota and North Dakota are to Fargo. Unfortunately, that doesn’t quite happen with Ozark. Maybe the fact that a large portion of the series was actually filmed in Atlanta had something to do with it. Bummer.
For a TV show in a genre that’s so well-trodden the past couple of decades, Ozark was always going to have to push the envelope really far cinematically and thematically. It doesn’t really manage to do that; what it does do, however, is create an interesting dynamic between an assorted group of characters that you feel invested in, despite your apprehensions. I use the term “apprehension” because, as much as I like Jason Bateman (and have liked him, long before Arrested Development...back when he starred in Silver Spoons and, more heart-throb-bishly, in The Hogan Family), I wasn’t really looking for another show about a white man who (partly due to circumstance, partly due to faulty decision making, and partly due to a rite-of-passage midlife crisis) finds himself in trouble, risking his life/career/family in the process. But call me a sucker for a smart, well-dressed man with a deadpan delivery coming to terms with the aftermath of his own decisions, his relationship with his cheating wife; add to that their teenage son and daughter, and a suitably exotic array of criminal-minded supporting characters (some of whom nicely subvert well-established TV tropes)...and I’m game for a binge!
Knowing exactly what I was going to be offered with Ozark, was actually a good thing — it allowed me to be sufficiently surprised when things were dealt with differently. Take for example, the scene in Chicago where Marty is about to confront his wife Wendy; in the middle of the sh*tstorm created by Bruce and while he’s planning his family’s move to the Ozarks, Marty learns that Wendy has emptied their joint checking account. Furious, he drives over to her lover’s 80th storey apartment, cursing Wendy as part of an inner dialogue with himself. I was preparing myself for their awkward confrontation (and maybe a punch or two) as Marty gets out of his car — just as Wendy’s lover’s body falls down with a loud thud on the pavement just a few steps from Marty. Turns out, cartel enforcer Del already had tabs on Marty and Wendy’s financial situation; realising something was fishy, he got to Wendy before Marty. Throwing Wendy’s lover out the balcony was just in case the Byrds needed any more warnings.
Wendy’s infidelity and her straight up owning it, as well as her involvement through everything as Marty’s partner in crime and all their schemes, is also a great change of pace from the good wife archetype. Laura Linney plays the part of Wendy with such gleeful abandon that, midway through Ozark’s 10 episodes, I’d started to wish the show was just a straight up old-fashioned caper with Wendy at the helm; the charming (and somewhat melodramatic) manner in which she deceived and manipulated people into getting what she wanted, was fascinating to watch. Whether it was getting a lakeside home in the Ozarks, a job at the local real estate agent’s (at the cost of the agent firing his own mother!), a pint of organic pistachio ice cream from the local supermarket, or even the local pastor to agree to let her and Marty donate their to-be-laundered money to build a church (until then, the pastor would hold morning sermons on the lake...because this is the Ozarks and everyone has a boat, natch! Also, local heroin farmers use the pastor’s lakeside sermons to distribute their goods through the Bibles...but that’s a whole other story!).
What’s also very interesting are the local characters, the way they’re portrayed, and the way they play out in this story that is essentially an urban middle class family’s worst nightmare. “Trailer trash”, “hick” etc are words that are quite often used to describe families living in trailers in that part of the United States; in Ozark, such stereotypes are subtly subverted — a family of petty crooks has a 19-year-old female ringleader Ruth, who’s smart, savvy, and wants to learn the “business of money laundering” from Marty, and a 17-year-old boy who reads sci-fi books atop his family’s trailer. Most critics have been raving about Julia Garner’s portrayal of Ruth, and while I personally found her performance to be a bit too affected and shrill, I loved how believable her character arc was through the series — from the cocky kid who just wants Marty’s bag of money, to the assured woman who plots to kill Marty for his money, her character is super believable. As the child of a convict and essentially parent-less, her vulnerability and confusion in the face of Marty and Wendy’s almost parental affection towards her, is endearing. So is her relationship with her cousin, the aforementioned sci-fi literature aficionado Wyatt — in the absence of parental guidance or monetary comfort, these kids look to each other for support and strength, and it’s certainly a testament to Ozark’s creators for not stereotyping or trivialising this aspect.
Another surprising (and more interesting) storytelling shift in Ozark is downplaying the typical teenage-daughter troubles and instead focusing on the son as someone who’s a bit of a mystery to even the parents. As Marty and Wendy grapple with their situation, at some point, their secret is out and the kids know what’s going on; narratively, I feel like that was a smart choice. As their son Jonah starts to gut wild animals and learns to use an assault rifle, you can feel the Byrd family teetering very close to the edge of a violent incident gone horribly wrong. Ordinarily, Jonah is sweet and inquisitive, albeit a bit weird, but there’s something about Wendy’s brother being like that and then pulling a Columbine-type attack, that makes Marty and Wendy afraid. Very afraid. If they weren’t being chased by Mexican drug lords and the FBI, this would be the kinda thing that would’ve kept them up all night. Alas, they need their sleep because tomorrow is yet another day to break laws, yet another enemy to outsmart, yet another fight to fight, and yet another million dollars to “clean.” Life in the Ozarks is no holiday, I tell ya!
Ozark is not pathbreaking in any way, period. If you’re looking for sweeping vistas and dark humour, watch Fargo. If you want a dark thriller that satisfyingly addresses marital discord and acceptance, watch The Americans. And if you want something that’s purely brilliant and pathbreaking, just rewatch all three seasons of Bojack Horseman. Ozark probably won’t fit the bill on any of these asks. But if you want a hardboiled-yet-slow-burn series that’s imminently binge-worthy and shatters any romanticism associated with drug money, lakeside living, sailing, or small-town America, then Ozark is a great watch. It’ll be a fun 10 hours!
1. Ozark was co-created by Bill Dubuque, the screenwriter for the appallingly bad Ben Affleck movie The Accountant. For some reason, Dubuque is convinced that the accountant/money manager is always a kickass badass. I’m very intrigued with Dubuque’s backstory.
2. What was more cringeworthy — the cartel members gouging out the eyeballs of a double-crossing member or Marty continuing to have his laptop open watching the video of Wendy having sex with her lover, even when she would walk into the the room close to where he sat? So much cringe.
3. As they approach the Ozarks, the Byrd family watches the region they’re about to completely disrupt — are they a metaphor for the European starling? Jonah watches a documentary about how the European starling, when it was first introduced to North America, wreaked havoc on the continent. Hmmm.
4. The idea of city dwellers and urbanites coming to the American heartland and going up against a culture they don’t fully understand, only to be thwarted by locals at each point — this philosophy, which applied to the Byrd family (them coming to the Ozarks from Chicago, and the many unforeseen challenges Marty is constantly up against) resonates really well post-2016 American elections. Sad, but true.